Tragedy in Laos

Research conducted on Corporal Bruce Edward Kane declared Missing in Action on August 9, 1969
By John Heeg

A few years ago I was preparing to teach my 8th grade Social Studies class about the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC. Part of my preparation process for any lesson is to continue to look for any additional source or lesson plan that may enhance a lesson. During a google search I came across the Vietnam Virtual Wall. As I navigated the site a thought came across to me. There are 57,939 names of our service members on that wall. How many of them are from Deer Park, New York the district I teach in? A couple of clicks revealed that there were 7 from Deer Park. When you are teaching about the past to middle school children it sometimes helps to find a way for them to connect to the content. I now had 7 connections from their community.

I was pleased with my findings and made mention of it in my lesson and my thoughts were validated when the room came to a silence when I stated that 7 of the people listed on the Vietnam Wall were from Deer Park. Of course 13 and 14 year olds were not aware of that because that was something that had happened over 40 years ago. I was later surprised to find that anyone I asked about it in the school district was unaware of this as well.

I did become disappointed in myself for not knowing. A social studies teacher could over look this fact but I have been in the military for over 13 years with 8 of those years a hospital corpsman serving exclusively with Marines. Shame on me for not even checking. My heart ached for those seven families that lost a loved one in Vietnam. To lose your son at such a young age is devastating. There will always be an empty place at the dinner table. The holidays are never the same. The future and hopes that a parent had for their son will never be realized.

In August of 1969, the family of Corporal Bruce Edward Kane was notified that their son was missing in action. Two years before, he graduated from Deer Park High School. My research on the six other Deer Park military members were able to tell me how they died, where they died, and where I could find their headstone should I want to visit. Kane’s family never received his body and were never given a clear explanation. The unanswered questions about Bruce Kane is what intrigued me.

According to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office there are 1,681 U.S. servicemen still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. Following the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, 591 U.S. prisoners of war were returned during Operation Homecoming. The U.S. listed about 1,350 Americans as prisoners of war or missing in action and roughly 1,200 Americans reported killed in action and body not recovered. The U.S. official number from Laos is 454. The last time Kane was seen was in Laos.

As I continued my research, I came across great people who were able to recall the events of August 9, 1969 and share them with me. I also came across discrepancies and inconsistencies available to researchers about the event. In the end, I was able to create a lesson plan centered around Bruce Kane to use in my classroom. It will be worth noting that obtaining accurate information on specific events that took place in Vietnam is complex due to the scope, the enormity of the war, and the many secrets that were kept during that time. Especially the secrets that were kept about Laos.

During the Vietnam War, negotiators in Geneva agreed that Laos would remain neutral. But because the United States feared the spread of communism, the C.I.A. directed a covert operation in Laos known as the “Secret War”. It recruited Vang Pao, a charismatic, widely respected general, along with tens of thousands of Hmong boys and men, as fighters. For a decade and a half, Gen. Vang Pao and his Hmong guerrillas fought alongside the Americans. During the war military personnel participated in numerous classified missions. The reason for these missions being classified were because wide-spread knowledge of them would give the enemy information we did not want them to have. Laos was a denied area. The United States concealed operations conducted in Laos because of the Geneva Accords.

The Central Intelligence Agency began its covert operations in Laos in 1958. The CIA used Meo tribesmen for a guerilla program that was initially supposed to be small but within 10 years that small guerrilla force grew to the size of 8 Marine Regiments at 40,000 fighters. In order to sustain this operation the CIA used its secretly owned airline called Air America to provide support. When missions required it, air support was used by the U.S. Army and Marine Corp to provide support to CIA-directed armies and covert MACV-SOG teams or Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group. Since military forces were working with the CIA in a denied area pilots were asked to change after action reports so as to not show where they actually were. Accurate information as to what happened on missions conducted in this area were hard to come by.

Two families that were affected by the secret war in Laos were the families of Corporal Bruce Edward Kane and 1st Lt. Ronald J. Janousek. Both were members of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367 (HMLA-367). Lt. Janousek was a co-pilot and Corporal Kane was a 6351 Advanced Avionics Technician-Trainee. During their August 9, 1969 mission where they both were listed as missing in action Kane was the door gunner. The unit was deployed to the Republic of Vietnam at Hue, Phu Bai in December 1966. While there, the unit was redesignated as Marine Light Helicopter Squadron 367 (HMLA-367) in March of 1969. Its assets consisted mainly of Bell UH-1E Huey Gunships armed with rockets, side mounted machine guns, and the TAT-101 machine gun turret. Growing to a total number of 25 aircraft, HMLA-367 was used in support of the 1st and 3rd Marine Divisions, the United States Army, and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Reassigned in October 1969 to Marine Air Group 16 (Forward), HML-367 remained in Vietnam.

On August 9, 1969 the crew comprised of: Pilot Major Tom Hill, Co-pilot 1st Lt. Ronald J. Janousek, Corporal J.J. Dean, and Corporal Bruce E. Kane. The crew was assigned to command the extraction of a SOG reconnaissance platoon that was being chased by a large North Vietnamese Army force. The crew was the lead Marine Aircraft flying under the call sign of “Eagle Claw” in their UH-1E tail number 155339. The mission included two UH1E Huey gunships, 4 Army Cobras, several Army Huey slicks, and several VNAF H-34s.

When Major Hill arrived in the vicinity of the reconnaissance team to be extracted he was informed that just a few minutes earlier an Army Cobra, piloted by Captain Mike Brokovick, had taken heavy fire from a ridge line near the team’s position. Major Hill exposed his aircraft to the same gun positions as he maneuvered to over fly the recon team. According to an August 12, 1969 statement made by Major Hill at approximately 15:00 his aircraft was hit with a volume of fire that actually lifted the helicopter.

In Hill’s statement he goes on to say that:

As soon as the helicopter was taken under fire, 1st Lt Janousek, Corporal Kane, and Lance Corporal Dean immediately returned fire. I transmitted that we were taking fire from our six o’clock and were taking hits.“I sincerely believe that if they had not returned fire instantly, our helicopter would have been severed in two.” We cleared the crest of the ridge and at approximately one half mile the enemy firing ceased.

At this point Major Hill did a quick check of the fuel quantity gauge and it had indicated that the Helicopter had gone from 1200 pounds to 800 pounds. At 3500 feet, Hill felt that if the fuel flow stopped he could make it to an abandoned fire support base. The helicopter continued to descend and at 2500 feet the engine quit. First Lt. Janousek was constantly advising the pilot of instrument readings as Hill began looking for a place to land.

Major Hill spotted a landing zone that was surrounded on three sides by a fast moving river, and was composed of a cultivated field approximately ⅛ acre in size. Hill figured that they would be able to defend their position on the ground due to the advantage of having water on three flanks (sides). Hill transmitted the location and description of the zone, Lt Janousek was instructed to change the armament panel from machine guns to the rocket position. The use of the rockets was going to allow them prep the zone. Due to the streaming fuel condition Major Hill was afraid the rocket back-blast would ignite the bird. Janousek then switched the rocket switch to a safe position.

At 1500 feet, there was a loud explosion throughout the aircraft, accompanied by fire and black smoke in the cockpit. When the cockpit cleared of smoke Major Hill observed that Lt. Janousek was on fire with a steady flow of fire coming up around him on his left side and through his window. At that moment Major Hill came to the realization that he needed to land the aircraft in water.

Read part II here.

About the author:

John has been a Social Studies Teacher in the Deer Park School District, NY for over 16 years. He received the Bright Light Award from Suffolk County Asset in 2015 for use of technology in the classroom. John served 8 years as a Hospital Corpsman with the Marine Corp and deployed with a Combat Engineer Battalion to Iraq in 2001-07. He is currently in the Air National Guard as an Aviation Resource Manager.
Follow him on Twitter: @dpmrheeg

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